Last week, Microsoft revealed that it would enhance the games in Halo: The Master Chief Collection for Xbox One X sometime in 2018. But there’s more to this story: Stung by its abysmal launch on the original Xbox One in 2014, Microsoft has been working for years to fix The Master Chief Collection. And the release of the Xbox One X this year is playing an interesting role in making that finally happen.
When I wrote about the news last week, I noted that it was “interesting” that the updates coming to the Halo games in The Master Chief Collection wouldn’t just be about updating the graphics for 4K and HDR; instead, the updates would also include “fixes, improvements and upgrades to the core game to help bring it forward and modernize many of the game’s systems to take advantage of Xbox platform advancements since its original launch.” And as it turns out, those fixes are, in many ways, far more important than the coming graphics upgrades.
The issue? Halo: The Master Chief Collection launched three years ago with its multiplayer capabilities in a broken state. And the fixes that Microsoft will deliver next year aren’t just for Xbox One X: They will make the games finally work correctly across all Xbox One consoles.
“There’s no excuse,” Halo franchise director Frank O’Connor wrote in a post to the Halo Waypoint blog. “But … we care about this very much and are throwing our best people and best efforts into this project.”
According to Mr. O’Connor, the release of Halo: The Master Chief Collection—or MCC, as he calls it—was “one of the lowest ebbs” of his career.
“I felt like I had personally let our fans down,” he wrote. “I have not spent a single day since the night the game fell down in matchmaking where I didn’t think about it. The hardest messages to deal with were the ones driven by disbelief. ‘How could you not know that matchmaking was going to break?’ – fundamentally it was because we were testing it in an environment that we had set up incorrectly and with some (as we discovered later) faulty assumptions. And unlike some of our other normal testing cycles, we weren’t testing for gameplay balance and stuff that the original releases already contained so our test process was radically different, and we made mistakes in some of the scenarios we asked for.”
The issue, it turns out, is that MCC would mark the first time that all of the then-current Halo games appeared on the same console, the Xbox One. Previous games were built for the original Xbox (Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2) or Xbox 360 (Halo 3, Halo 4). (2015’s Halo 5: Guardians shipped on Xbox One as well.)
“The project ballooned in scope and scale and ambition,” O’Connor explains. “In our matchmaking testing we were seeing results that ultimately weren’t reflective of the real retail environment, and our test sessions never got to the kind of scale where we’d see some … issues. We genuinely didn’t know until the day it released, how bad the matchmaking in particular was going to get.”
Put simply, the four titles were originally written for older Xbox consoles, but “some of the underlying systems” were built for the Xbox One, which was “fundamentally different” from those earlier consoles.
“We made errors and ultimately approached it with the wrong strategy,” Mr. O’Connor notes.
Fixing the problems was a daunting task. And it’s unclear whether they would have been fixed properly had Microsoft not decided to take the unprecedented step of overhauling a current console generation to such as degree, as it did with Xbox One X.
“Without the ability and opportunity to reconfigure and fix this thing, we wouldn’t touch an Xbox One update,” O’Connor notes. “But a series of changes to the Xbox architecture, some of them related to Xbox One X, and others just a series of ongoing improvements to the OS and back end networking systems, have cracked open an opportunity we’ve wanted to seize for many, many months now … fixing the existing ‘vanilla’ Xbox One MCC was the Chicken that laid the Xbox One X enhanced version egg.”
As crazy as this sounds, it appears that Microsoft, in 2018, almost four years after the original Halo: The Master Chief Collection release, will finally release a version of that package that meets its own expectations as well as those of its fans. And the update that will deliver those fixes will also bring 4K/HDR-enhanced versions of those original games to those with an Xbox One X. Kind of a win-win, when you think about it.
“We don’t assume anything anymore,” O’Connor writes. “The platform itself has made some truly evolutionary improvements to its underlying technology, and recent fundamental changes mean that we might have the opportunity to make some fixes without risking everything else … MCC was essentially six pretty different game engines strapped together and interlinked with highly complex and highly delicate new systems. With Xbox One X on the horizon, it was obvious that we could simultaneously update the game to take advantage of the new hardware for folks that have it and use that as an opportunity to finally rearchitect and update some of the foundational issues and networking/matchmaking methods.”
O’Connor promises a future update in which he will explain what happened at a more technical level: He doesn’t want to “jinx” things right now, so we’ll need to wait until next year. But this kind of transparency is always appreciated, and while I’ve drifted away from Halo after the first three games—each of which I’ve completed multiple times—this kind of makes me want to give it another go. I finished Halo 4 only once, for example, and barely scratched the surface of Halo 5: Guardians.